Saturday, February 9, 2013

Blizzard 2013: Operation Soft Pretzels

I love snow. Yeah, go ahead and hate all you want. I love it. After watching the winds blow something wicked and the snow drifts pile up all night, we went out in the morning and acted a fool up and down the car-less streets of historic Salem. So long as the heat and power hold up, I say, bring it on. And where there is snow, there will be beer... and the Germans say that the thing you eat with beer is a soft pretzel. That sounds pretty good right about now, doesn't it?
But, therein lies a problem. The pretzels you get in Bavaria are unbelievably delicious. There's a crunch on the outside, and the inner pretzel pulls apart with pillowy, doughy delight. It's buttery, and salty, and perhaps the best form of snackable bread that you can get. The last time I had one was in Rothenburg ob der Tauber, basically the most picturesque little German walled-town you can imagine, and it was everything I had expected, and so much more. Replicating such a specific regional flavor in your home kitchen seems so daunting. But that ain't going to stop me. Plus, there's a blizzard outside. I've got nowhere to go, and images of carbohydrates dancing in my brain.
After hunting for a good recipe online, I settled on this one called "Almost-Famous Soft Pretzels" from Food Network. It's an easy recipe to follow if you take your time, so I recommend step by step following the instructions, instead of rushing things or playing a bit of jazz, which are constantly two little chatty cathy devils dancing on my shoulders.
Dough prior to rising
The dough for this recipe comes together very easily. Combine the warmed milk and the yeast, and then also adding in the dry ingredients in two batches, and of course, the softened butter. It's a fairly sticky dough, but light, and easy to work with if you do keep your hands and your board floured. 
The dough hath risen
After kneading for about five minutes, the dough went into a buttered medium size bowl to rise for an hour. When the timer went off, the dough had doubled in size, and was light and airy. Not sure why I find this so shocking. It's just magical really. Little yeasty guys, doing their thing. 
Next you punch down your dough, slice into six equal size portions and begin the rolling. I could give you the play by play of rolling to 30 inches long, forming a U-shape, twisting the ends twice, and then bringing them back toward you to make the classic pretzel shape, but it's really better if you just watch this video. Watch it from about the middle. That flingy, twisting thing is showboating. 
Classic pretzel shape: achieved
Now, this recipe actually won out because it had an extra step that I thought might get these Salem-baked pretzels a bit closer in texture to their cousins in Bavaria. So after you've shaped your pretzels, the recipe calls for you to mix three cups of warm water with 1/3 of a cup of baking soda. And then you carefully dip the raw pretzels into the baking soda solution prior to baking. German pretzels are normally dipped in a lye solution prior to being baked, which is not something recommended for the home baker in the States. The baking soda liquid is supposed to have a similar effect, producing a crunchy brown crust on the outer surface of the pretzel. 
Anyway, the pretzels received their little bath, a sprinkle of salt, and then it was into a 450 degree oven for ten minutes. When they came out, they were a lovely dark brown, nice and crispy on the outside. The last step is to dip them in melted butter, giving each pretzel that extra special sheen of shiny butter.
After baking
How as the flavor? Just as I remember. There's an initial crunch when you take a first bite, a product of all that extra care we put into each treat by dipping it into the baking soda mixture. Then there's a burst of salt that mingles with the final coating of butter. And finally there's the chew: that yeasty, hearty and mysteriously light texture that you get with a fine piece of fresh from the oven baked bread. If you have a chill and a bit of the blues from the revenge of Old Man Winter that we just experienced, maybe you should take advantage of the shut in and start baking some pretzels and drinking some beer. When in doubt, do as the Bavarians... they have the right idea. 
Your play, Old Man.
Shiny, butter dipped pretzel for a snow day


1 cup milk
1 package active dry yeast
3 tablespoons packed light brown sugar
2 1/4 cups all-purpose flour, plus more for kneading
10 tablespoons unsalted butter, plus more for greasing
1 teaspoon fine salt
1/3 cup baking soda
2 tablespoons coarse salt

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